Category Archives: civility

White Evangelicals, We Have a Responsibility for Women, Immigrants, and People of Color

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A new president has been elected. Under normal circumstances, the supporters of the new president are thrilled and the supporters of the defeated opponent are depressed. But for the most part, just about all Americans are willing to fall in behind the new administration and give it a chance to govern.

But those circumstances, alas, are not ours. A polarizing figure has been elected. Another polarizing figure was defeated. It is unfortunate that these were our two major choices. According to the New York Times, only 9 percent of Americans voted to nominate Clinton and Trump. That in itself is a galling reality. But it is still the reality.

There are protests all over the country, less it seems over the fact that Clinton lost and more over the fact that Trump won. But as I see it, the consternation goes deeper than that. Trump, because of his own statements and behavior, has sent the message to the nation that he is anti-immigrant, misogynistic, and racist. (When I say racist, it is not necessarily because he doesn’t like black people–rather, it is because he is supportive of power structures that favor white people). Women, minorities, and immigrants are afraid for their safety and security–because of how Trump has constructed his image over the past 18 months. They are also worried because, as has been underscored time and again, Trump is an unknown element. Nobody knows what to expect out of a Trump presidency, because he has been so short on details and long on generalizations and emotions.

And since eighty-one percent of evangelical Christians supported Trump, they have a particular responsibility to demonstrate support for women, minorities, and immigrants. Evangelicals have risked their public witness by abandoning their traditional conviction that persons who stand for office should have an honorable character. They have also, in their support of Trump, gained (maybe–I stress, maybe) a seat at the table of power, while wagering their own credibility in the public square. If evangelicals ignore those who have legitimate concerns about their futures, then they will indeed lose any and all credibility that remains for them in America.

Many evangelical Christians did not vote for Trump. But even those who did not have a special responsibility to marginalized people, because they will be implicated in Trump’s election whether they like it or not.

Ed Stetzer and Laurie Nichols have a piece out in Christianity Today laying out some helpful specifics on what evangelicals can do to show support for those who are anxious for the future. It’s very helpful, and evangelical Christians should follow their prescriptions.

Here is a portion of the article:

As such, let me share six ways that White Evangelicals, among others, can respond.

First, if you’ve never spoken up about some of the offensive things that Trump has said, this would be a good time to apologize for that.

I was deeply disappointed that many Evangelicals changed their views about the private character of public officials as President-elect Trump emerged. And many Evangelicals, who were deeply concerned about Hillary Clinton’s possible election, were inappropriately silent while Trump acted and spoke so divisively.

It’s a good time to apologize for that silence. Even if you made the decision that Hillary Clinton was a greater evil, if you never spoke up about some of Trump’s comments, you’ve failed those to whom those comments were addressed.

Second, if you are in ministry leadership, affirm (or begin) a commitment to developing a multicultural approach that more intentionally elevates people of color.

My friend Derwin Gray, who is lead pastor at Transformation Church in North Carolina, has a helpful video to help us get started in our churches. We must lead our churches in such a way that when non-Christians come in, they see a commitment to Oneness in the Body of Christ. We must provide places where each person in the church, regardless of race or gender or age, feels welcomed and affirmed.

The last place I spoke before the election was the Mosaix Conference, where I and many others expressed a hope (and plan) for a more diverse church. As our nation is more divided, at this moment, the church needs to become more visibly diverse.

Honestly, I don’t really consider myself a “White Evangelical,” and maybe you don’t either. I preach every week at Moody Church, a multicultural congregation of over 70 nations, but the fact that “White Evangelical” is so clearly a thing reminds us of the work we have to do.

Third, we must all speak for—and sometimes even join—those who are marginalized. My friend Charlie Dates, who serves as senior pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, wrote a helpful piece on The Exchange recently. In it, Charlie wrote:

Evangelical churches in America can benefit from the testimony of other Christians who have long lived on the cultural margins, from a people group who wielded no political influence or economic superiority—a people who functioned largely as a subset, or minority in the larger American Evangelical story. In their history abides a witness, a recipe for thriving ministry, and an illustration of the gospel’s power to make buoyant a church relegated to the periphery of national significance.

His statement is powerful; it is a lesson for White Evangelicals to embrace the opportunity to join those who have historically been at the margins for the good of the Church and the glory of God.

This may mean more advocacy in the face of injustice. It may mean volunteering time with inner-city youth who come from single-parent homes. There are many opportunities for compassion and solidarity, and we should be looking for them.

Fourth, we must embrace the refugee, the immigrant, and people on the move. This is a particularly frightening time for some people, precisely because of campaign promises that were made by candidates and approved by voters. Some families genuinely have no idea what will happen next. We cannot underestimate their fears, and we should be the first ones ready to show love and care.

When World Relief launched it’s ‘We Welcome Refugees’ campaign, thousands of people planted a sign in their yards in a symbolic act of solidarity. As white Evangelicals, we pray hard and work hard so that those who find themselves without home and community have people of safety to run towards. We must be places of refuge.

Fifth, we must speak up and quickly condemn any and all racist comments flowing out of this election. Many were quick to condemn statements about other issues, and would have continued to speak out if things had gone a different way.

Racism is evil and we cannot pretend that it was not a part of the rhetoric in our culture these past several months. It simply must not continue, and we should be among the first to repudiate it.

Sixth, we must elevate non-Anglo evangelicals. If you have a platform, join me in sharing it with people of color. It’s not a mistake that I’ve just done a series on Race in America (hosting all African American Evangelicals) and been doing a series on Diaspora Missions (i.e. refugees). Share your pulpit, platform, conference, blog, and more with people of color.

Most of these things we already owe—as Christians, to brothers and sisters of Christ—but if we listen to our minority brothers and sisters, we owe them particularly now.

 

Memories of the Confederacy and Black Lives Matter

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Lee Park, Charlottesville, Virginia

I have written about my family’s Confederate heritage in the past here at the blog (see here and here). My grandparents were like second parents to my brother and I growing up. They sought to instill in us an appreciation and love for our Southern heritage and for our ancestors who helped shape it.

As a child and as a young man, I idolized my grandmother and grandfather. In many ways, I still do. They died when I was in my early twenties–and over twenty years after their deaths, I still have the urge sometimes to pick up the phone to call them (I still remember their phone number with the same ease I remember my date of birth; and I still carry their house key on my key ring). Their portraits hang in my house and I keep their memory alive by talking about them with my children. So, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between my love for them and my yearning to honor their memory from how I think about the South with all its historical complexities. I love the South and much of its history because I associate it with my family, to which of course I will always be devoted.

And yet, I am ashamed that my ancestors were slave owners, and that some of them were instrumental in defining the pro-slavery positions argued in public discourse during the 1840s and 50s. Some of my ancestors served as senior officers in the Army of Northern Virginia and another in the Confederate Senate. After the war, some of my ancestors’ former slaves continued to serve as domestic servants. I wrote about some of those former slaves here.

On the issue of the propriety of displaying Confederate monuments in public places, my views have changed over the years. If you had asked me five years ago about whether or not it was appropriate to display monuments commemorating the Confederacy, I would have advocated for it strenuously. But spending time reading Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, W. E. B. Du Bois, Carter Woodson, MLK, Jr., Malcolm X, Cornel West, and other African-American writers; after building building relationships with scholars of African-American history like Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Edward Blum, Edward Carson, Keisha Blain, Robert W. Williams, Vincent Bacote (a theologian), and others in the African American Intellectual History Society; after teaching in the Darrington prison, which is predominately black (and see Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness); and after reflecting on biblical teachings on unity in Christ and neighbor-love, I have come to see this issue of Confederate monuments in a different way.

For example, in my former home of Charlottesville, VA, an equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee has kept vigil over the city square adjacent to the courthouse since the 1920s. It is an impressive statue, and the park where it sits, Lee Park, is beautiful and tranquil. Recently, a fifteen year old Charlottesville High School student started a petition to have the statue removed and to rename the park. The city council has taken up the issue and will decide on the fate of the park in the next month or so. As you might imagine, the issue is extremely controversial.

I recently co-authored a piece over at Then and Now with Edward Carson on this issue. In reflecting on the student’s petition, I am left to ask–who exactly is making the request that the statue be taken down and the park renamed? Is this a group of foreigners? Are they carpetbaggers? Are they outsiders? Or are they members of the community fully vested in its interests? In other words, are the people Charlottesvillians? Virginians? Americans?

If they are outsiders, then their request should be taken with a grain of salt. But if they are full fledged members of the community, then their voices should be taken seriously even by those who would disagree.

Consider a historical parallel. All over the colonies during the 1770s and 1780s, Americans were removing statues of George III. They did so because he no longer served as an appropriate symbol of the people. They were no longer his subjects. And it was entirely appropriate for them to remove those statues. Furthermore, the people hauling down the statues were not Frenchmen or Spanish interlopers. They were Americans. They had the legitimate emotional, political, logical, and historical bases to do so and nobody objected by calling on the historical value of statues of the king of England.

Robert E. Lee–notwithstanding the nobility of his character, his Christian faith, or even his magnanimous attitude after the war–is not a unifying symbol in Charlottesville, or anywhere else. As a symbol, Lee is divisive. To significant elements of our local communities all over the South, Lee is a repelling force. The question of whether or not he should be divisive as a symbol is another question. The fact is, he is.

The last thing Americans need is one more thing to divide them. We are already incurably divided up into factions so much so that another civil war actually seems possible. It is unfortunate indeed that no matter what happens with Lee Park–whether the statue stays or goes–the decision of the city council is going to be divisive.

But here I will offer some unsolicited advice to my friends who would advocate for keeping the statue. First, I am one of you. I have more than my share of Confederate heritage credentials. My great great great grandfather was Thomas R. R. Cobb, chairman of the Confederate Constitutional drafting committee, brigadier general under Longstreet, killed in action at Fredericksburg after hurling back the main Federal assault six times from the Sunken Road. My great great great uncle, Howell Cobb, was former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Secretary of the Treasury under Buchanan, major general in the Confederate army, and Confederate Senator from Georgia.

Second, we who love our Southern heritage need to honestly investigate the impact of our ancestors’ actions on black persons. We need to ask–why do African-American persons react the way they do to Confederate soldiers and statesmen? Why does the pain of slavery endure after all these years? How would we see a statue of Lee or Forrest or A. S. Johnston if we were black and growing up in a small Southern town? And what would we think about Confederate memorials if 7/8 of the period of our experience on this continent since 1619 was defined in terms of slavery or state sponsored apartheid?

Or let us think of the issue another way. What would we as Americans think about a statue displayed in a public park of George III? Or Santa Anna? Kaiser Wilhelm II? Yamamoto? Rommel? Ho Chi Minh? Saddam Hussein? Osama bin Laden? What do all of these figures have in common? The United States was at war with each of these leaders, and many of us can claim family members who fought and died to defeat them.

If black people are Americans, does it not make sense that those Americans would recoil from commemorating the enemy of their country?

We who have emotional attachments to the Southern Confederacy can honor our ancestors’ memory without continuing to ignore and marginalize the historical experiences of our fellow citizens who are African American. We can honor our ancestors’ memories, remembering that they were not gods, but sinful men and women. In honoring them, we must apply honesty and humility when we remember the meaning of their lives’ work, work which was not always performed for the flourishing of all persons. I know that my grandparents would not want me to deify them, but to remember them with honesty. I like to think that my nineteenth century ancestors would want the same.

A fellow conservative recently accused me of being PC friendly the other day because I said that there are valuable aspects to the Black Lives Matter movement. Everyone–especially Christian people–should affirm the human personhood of black people. I don’t agree with everything associated (fairly or not) with Black Lives Matter. However, I do think that the statement “black lives matter” is true, and deeply meaningful given that American society has not historically affirmed the truth of that statement.

It is tragic indeed that African American persons often think they need to make the statement at all. It is also sad that more Christian people do not rise up in solidarity with black folks who see the necessity of making the statement.

Count me in as a white Southern conservative Christian who stands in solidarity with African Americans. From a Christian perspective, this seems to be a no-brainer: black lives matter.

What Are We Missing in the Gun Debate?

Like many Americans, I have been following the conversation on the most recent mass shooting in Oregon.

Many helpful perspectives have been offered. And if I could, let me begin this post by recounting a brief personal story.

When I was sixteen, I was held hostage in an armed robbery of a gas station in Sandy Springs, Georgia. I stopped in to fill up my puke-yellow colored Dodge Omni on the way to pick up a buddy. We were planning on going to see a movie (Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Don’t judge me.) The pumps were turned off, so I went inside to ask the attendant to please cut on pump #1. Immediately, a man that was on this side of the counter put a gun in my face, grabbed me by the shoulder, and held the gun to my head while he demanded that I tell the attendant to give him the money.

It all happened so fast. Three seconds earlier, I was safe and sound, looking forward to seeing a goofball movie with my goofball friend. Now I had a gun jammed right under my ear, by a person who appeared to be in deep earnest who was prepared to kill me where I stood.

Long story short, the assailant shot the attendant in the face, took the money, and ran out the door. He had to get past me to get to the door, and as he was running for the door I remember him looking right into my eyes. I closed my eyes, believing with all sincerity that he was going to shoot me, too. He didn’t. He ran out the door and was never caught (to my knowledge, at least for that particular crime).

Let me also say this about myself. I am a gun owner, and grew up surrounded by guns. My grandfather was a World War II veteran and an avid hunter. He taught my brother and I how to respect guns, how to shoot guns, how to clean guns, and how to hunt with guns. I consider that education under my grandfather’s wise tutelage critical to my upbringing and formation as a human being. In teaching me all about guns, Papa taught me how to value life—all life, the life of animals and the life of human persons.

Now I realize not everyone was blessed to have such an education. I realize that there are a lot of idiots out there with guns. And I’m not opposed to some smart and effective gun laws that seek to curb gun violence that claims the lives of precious sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, wives, grandmothers, and grandfathers. As a survivor of gun violence myself, how could I be opposed to the enacting of such laws?

But I do not believe that more laws are going to deter the lawless. The cretans who take lives in movie theatres, churches, schools, and other public places will find means to do so no matter the laws. That’s why they’re lawless.

There are 300 million guns in this country. As many people have accurately pointed out, the only way to eliminate gun violence is to eliminate guns. But there will always be guns in our society. Always. And guns will always be available. Even if we rounded up all the guns (which seems like a pipe dream) held by private citizens in the United States, more guns will still be available, and people with ill intent will perpetually seek to acquire them. And use them against the unarmed.

So what to do?

The gun problem in America seems to be a symptom of the deeper problem of the coarseness of our culture. To put it in plain English, people are crazy. I watched a clip just this morning of a UConn student that went ballistic in the cafeteria. He was refused service because he had an open container of alcohol while trying to get his food. When he was refused service, the kid went crazy—along with an F-word laced rant, he shoved the manager numerous times, nearly knocking the man off his feet each time. He had to be physically restrained and taken off by the cops in handcuffs. As he was being led away, he offered a classy parting shot. He spit in the manager’s face.

It’s a good thing he didn’t have a gun. But this culture, in which we all are a part, does not value life. It does not value human dignity. It is not respectful of authority. It is contemptuous of the elderly. It is self-obsessed, shortsighted, base, and ignorant. The discourse in popular culture and in politics is self serving, oversexualized, trivial, vain, violent, filthy, and puerile. The culture calls evil good and good evil, and does not even know how to blush.

Add 300 million guns to the mix, and who could be surprised at the number of violent deaths in this country? It’s a wonder the numbers aren’t higher.

Adding more laws to try to control the deviance of this culture may do something of value, but it won’t cure the deviance.

I submit that one avenue of hope is religion. Contrary to the charges of the hard-core secularists, religion is not harmful to the culture. Religion promotes virtue, promotes human dignity, self-sacrifice, neighbor-love, good citizenship, and respect for individual freedom.

What about religious people? Aren’t a lot of religious people crazy, too? You better believe it! Many are. Religious people sometimes betray the convictions of their faith system. There are many hypocrites among us. But the actions of hypocritical people do not undermine the claims of religious faiths. They prove those claims. Take human sinfulness as an example, a teaching that the major religions affirm. Hypocritical religious people simply demonstrate the teaching of human sinfulness in real time.

Now I’m an evangelical Christian. Naturally, I want everyone in the country (and the world) to be a follower of Jesus Christ, who took the penalty of sin upon himself on the cross and rose again on the third day, providing eternal salvation to any person who will place her faith in him.

But I realize that not everyone is going to adhere to the doctrines of Christianity. Others will adhere to the teachings of Moses, to Mohammed, to Buddha, to Confucius, to Brigham Young, and to a host of others. Many will choose to adhere to no religion at all. Every person will exercise her right to follow her own conscience in terms of spiritual truth. That is the beauty of religious freedom in the United States. Religious freedom is being politicized these days, and we must guard against that disturbing trend. Religious freedom is not the property of any particular interest group. It is a heritage intended for all of us, even non-believers.

But religion in general is a good thing. It is good for a society to encourage the flourishing of religious faith, because in that flourishing, public virtue and a culture of life may also flourish.

Our society has only recently bought into the great lie that religion is a bad thing, that it has no place in public policy or discourse, that its place is confined to the four walls of a religious meeting house. Few politicians in office, that I know of, have offered up a serious argument in a consistent way for the encouragement of public religious expression as a panacea to the gun problem—or any moral problem in our country, for that matter. That’s too bad, because the flourishing of religious faith would be a great ally in the struggle against gun violence, among the many other moral woes we face as a culture.

Sure, there are religious people in office and running for office. But they often scrupulously keep their religious beliefs “personal” because their faith “does not influence their policy positions.” That’s absurd. It’s intellectually vacuous. It’s also not true. Every position we take on things that matter is informed by our religious commitments. Nobody is religiously neutral. Even non-religious people stand on absolute moral principles, such as the affirmation that murder, lying, adultery, and theft are wrong and should be punished.

Do laws matter? Of course they do. And we should consider enacting some new laws that make sense, laws that are not crafted for their own sake. And we must enforce those laws that are already on the books.

But to promote a culture of life, to soften the coarseness of our culture, to train respect of other people’s things and other people’s lives—do religions have anything to offer in these noble and civic pursuits?

A thousand times, yes.

And as a Bible believing Christian, I bear witness to unique claims of Jesus Christ to bring life to the world. He said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (John 6.51-52). Christ is the One who laid down his life so that you and I might have life.

Our “Wars” and Why We Fight Them

Flag_Culture_Wars-600x398Ever wonder what’s up with the ubiquitous use of the word “war” to describe some political or cultural cause? A glance at the headlines reveals that we are a nation at war with ourselves. If aliens darting around the galaxy were to stop for a bathroom break on Earth and read our headlines, they would see that there is a war on women, a war on religion, a war on poverty, a war on drugs, a war on terror, a war on science, a war on reason, a war on Christmas, a war on kids, a war on fat, a war on whistleblowers, and on and on and on (these are all actual “wars” we are “fighting,” according to a 30 second Google search I did just now.)

It’s weird, at least to me, that we use the word “war” in this way. I’ve never been in actual combat, but I am aware enough to know that our nation has been sending men and women to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan to serve in combat in a real shooting war since September 11, 2001. Using the term “war” to talk about a cultural or political cause has always seemed to cynically minimize the sacrifices that our servicemen and women have made over the past thirteen years.

I was reading about Elizabeth Warren’s recent speech in which she vowed, “We will overturn Hobby Lobby and we will fight for it, we will fight for it.” What did she mean? Is she advocating for violence?

The use of the word “war” and “fight” in political/cultural context obviously does not mean anything entailing violence (usually, at least). But it does conjure up images of grappling with an enemy, of strategy and tactics, of advance and retreat, of victory or defeat. Cultural and political wars are fixated on the hope of a victorious future or the dread of an irreversible defeat. Wars mean sacrifice, toil, commitment. Above all, wars call for unity in the face of a threat.

War has a peculiar civil religious element that is useful in bringing unity to otherwise disparate groups. In a war like World War II, Americans put aside many, if not most, of their religious, cultural, social, racial, and cultural differences for the purpose of defeating the Japanese and the Germans. They made sacrifices. They bought bonds. They weathered bad news and they determined never to be satisfied with anything less than unconditional surrender. And in the end, that’s what they got from their enemies. They were totally defeated.

Raymond Haberski’s God and War: American Civil Religion Since 1945 addresses how Americans have seen war over the past three generations. War, Haberski argues, has been an essential idea to American unity and purpose since World War II. It brings people together in ways that other ideas simply cannot. In the absence of a real shooting war, Americans will often make up a war, in order to rally to a cause.

The Global War on Terror was unique in that, from the beginning, our leaders never demanded much of the non-military population in the way of sacrifice. President Bush, in a September 27, 2001 speech at O’Hare International Airport, encouraged Americans to continue doing what they were doing: “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed,” he said. This, in stark contrast to FDR’s call for the American people to sacrifice for the war effort in a speech from April 28, 1942, in which he said, “All of us are used to spending money for things that we want, things, however, which are not absolutely essential. We will all have to forgo that kind of spending.”

Since the War on Terror is a war that is largely fought by the military, but not the citizenry, people in general have room in their minds for other “wars” that serve to rally them to causes that concern them as disparate groups. Race, religion, gender, environment, class, and political party serve as suitable “front lines” in the “wars” we fight. One problem, according to James Davison Hunter in his Before the Shooting Begins, is that “culture wars always precede shooting wars.”

I’m not in the business of predicting the future, but I can read the present. We live in a time when we are actually getting accustomed to mass shootings at malls, schools, theaters, and even places of worship. I found myself in the position recently to explain to my kids why the person in the car in front of us gave us the middle finger and just tried to run us off the road. I know I, along with people representing every political and social position, worry about the suspicious “war-fighting” culture we are handing down to our children.

And yet, Americans self-identify along the lines of race, gender, political persuasion, etc.. I guess there’s nothing new in that. What seems unique in our present situation is that the group mentality often entails “war” with other groups that are considered “the enemy.”

Considering this from a historical perspective, Americans, it seems have always seen themselves in such terms while the issues that divide them have changed. This is especially ironic, since our national motto (until 1956) was E Pluribus Unum (“out of many, one”). Perhaps we need to go back to the Federalist Papers, and read what Madison, Hamilton, and Jay wrote about the challenge of maintaining unity among so many disparate groups, or factions, as they called them. Madison wrote in Federalist 51,

If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution. When a majority is included in a faction, the form of popular government, on the other hand, enables it to sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens. To secure the public good and private rights against the danger of such a faction, and at the same time to preserve the spirit and the form of popular government, is then the great object to which our inquiries are directed. 

The republican concept of the “public good” was a salient concept in Madison’s thinking. Public good is to be differentiated from “group good.” Selfishness destroys republics. Pursuit of the public good, the common wealth, is the aim of the republic. One means of attaining the public good is a scrupulous attention to respecting the natural rights of all men, women, and children. Natural rights, as understood through the lens of the natural law tradition in Western thought, are based on the existence of God and the divine image he has bestowed on his human creatures, giving them all worth and dignity. Respecting the natural rights of all means, at minimum, that individuals and groups do not seek to limit or deny the rights of other individuals or groups. Madison also said in Federalist 51,

Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens;

Culture and political war-fighting is anathema to a republican pursuit of the public good. Wars pit groups against each other, casting the other as “the enemy” to be totally defeated and destroyed. It’s hard to see how our system of democratic-republicanism can survive in its current state of constant wars and rumors of wars.

Trigger Warnings in Maximum Security Prison

Trigger-warningI must say, I am enjoying the fact that at the moment I have no lectures to prepare, no papers to grade, and no classes to lead. The past couple of weeks, I have written another two chapters of my forthcoming book on exceptionalism, and things are looking good for a productive remainder of the summer in terms of my research.

But just because I haven’t been in the classroom for a month now doesn’t mean I haven’t been reflecting on the past year and thinking about my classes for next year. I have a really full load in the fall–one graduate course called Makers of the American Mind, and five undergraduate courses: Western Civ I, Contemporary Worldviews, Issues in American Culture, History of Philosophy, and Principles and Structure of American Politics (which I have made primarily into an intellectual history of the Constitution). Fall is going to be busy–but with any luck, my book manuscript will be finished so I can focus on teaching.

Three of my classes–Western Civ, American Culture, and American Politics–will be at the prison. This will be my fourth year teaching out there, and I’ve been following the hubbub on trigger warnings–see here, herehere, and here.

It seems to me, that if there is anywhere one should be careful about creating a stir in the classroom, it would be in a room with forty convicted felons with no guards present. But to be honest, in the six semesters I have taught courses in the prison at Darrington, I haven’t given much thought in setting up a particular topic with a trigger warning. Perhaps I should–for example, in my American politics course, we devote six hours of class time to slavery and the civil rights movement. Lynching is one disturbing sub-topic (among many) I cover, and I have never encountered a problem with the students. In fact, many of the inmates have expressed their appreciation to me for not watering down the African American experience since 1619.

Still, I think it shows some common decency to at least think about how students may react to traumatic events in the past. I mean, I have no idea what the students in my prison courses have experienced in their lives–but I do know that many, if not most of them, reacted to their life experience by destroying other people’s lives, both literally and figuratively. And gaining trust among the inmates at Darrington is a much taller order than in a traditional classroom. Inmates are suspicious and contemptuous of authority in many cases, and building trust is key if I am going to be successful in educating these men.

I’ve learned a lot about teaching, being in the Darrington Unit. While I think that it is easy for folks to get upset about the over-sensitivity of college students, freedom of speech, and a host of other issues surrounding the idea of trigger warnings, I still think that a bit of care and thought toward undergraduates and their backgrounds and feelings can go a long way.

What is the Relationship between Patriotism and Justice?

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I’ve been looking closely at David T. KoyzisPolitical Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies. A well researched, firmly grounded, original approach to how religious commitments affect political ideology. Much of what Koyzis writes in his chapter on nationalism resonates with me.

In that chapter, Koyzis critiques nationalism as idolatrous because it locates supremacy in the state, defined as a transcendent reality. What makes nationalism idolatrous is that it demands unconditional loyalty of the citizen to the state, over and above all other loyalties.

The way out, according to Koyzis, is “patriotic loyalty.” Patriotism is an appropriate expression of love of country, but that love is rooted in justice. If justice is defined as the giving that which is due to all in a community, then patriotic love is the expression of “shared commitment” to the members of a national community bound by a political power in a defined set of geographical boundaries.

What does a shared commitment look like in such a community? It seems that it would take the form of people looking to the common good of the other members of the community. This notion is at the heart of the res publica, or the republic, also known as a commonwealth.

Patriotism, understood through the lens of justice, is sharply distinguished from nationalism. Nationalism is exclusivist, in that only two groups of people exist: those who are members of the community and those who are outside of it. Those inside are superior to those on the outside. And those who are superior have the right to act upon those who are inferior in any way they choose. Race could be the animating force of this acting upon the other, or religion, or greed.

But patriotism, based upon justice, does not adopt an “us versus them” attitude either within the community or without. Patriotism is inclusivist because it is rooted in love of community that upholds and pursues the common good of all its citizens. It is a limited love–patriotism does not seek to exalt the community over the family or religion. But it is a just love, that is one that is properly placed and applied.

Justice unites a society, while injustice breaks it apart. During the American Civil War, the injustice of slavery shattered the Union and extinguished the lives of many hundreds of thousands. But justice restored the Union by ending slavery and bringing about reconciliation between the sections. It was limited in its application, in that African Americans were not given what they were due–the rights and privileges of full citizenship and respect for their human dignity. Much more had to be done to effect justice for an entire segment of the community that had been neglected and abused for a very long time. But true patriots point out injustices that exist in the community, and pay the price to see that those injustices are corrected.

When approaching the idea of American exceptionalism, there are two expressions–one is nationalistic and one is patriotic. That is, one is exclusivist and the other is inclusivist. One is closed, the other open. One is based on an idolatrous conception of America, the other is based on a Christian conception and application of justice. One sees America as the pinnacle of human existence. The other sees America as a community of shared ideals that are rooted in the rule of law as defined by transcendent ethical standards. This community will not always live up to its ideals. But it is a community that cannot live with itself until it does.

Lincoln the Magnanimous

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From William J. Wolf, The Almost Chosen People: A Study of the Religion of Abraham Lincoln:

“From a window of the White House to a group who serenaded him on his re-election, [Lincoln] confessed: ‘So long as I have been here I have not willingly planted a thorn in any man’s bosom. While I am deeply sensible to the high compliment of a re-election; and duly grateful, as I trust, to Almighty God for having directed my countrymen to a right conclusion, as I think, for their own good, it adds nothing to my satisfaction that any other man may be disappointed or pained by the result. May I ask those who have not differed with me, to join with me, in this same spirit towards those who have?'”

What a model of civility presented by this great President to his people. This was a people torn apart by the issue of civil war. One side wanted to end the bloodletting, even at the cost of negotiating an end to the war with the Confederacy on the basis of separation. Lincoln’s position was to see the thing through until the states of the Confederacy had been restored to their proper relationship to the other states of the Union.

Lives were at stake. At the time of the election in the fall of 1864, no one really knew how much longer the war would go on. George McClellan, Lincoln’s opponent, represented the position that almost guaranteed an immediate end to the war and the suffering. The election of Lincoln would mean that the war would go on, perhaps for a very long time–no one really knew.

If there was ever a time when public civility would have no place in the political, religious, social, or economic life of the nation, it would have been in 1864-65. If it could be possible to justifiably dismiss civility from the words and actions of politicians, it would seem that the election of 1864 would be the time. But Lincoln consistently extended his magnanimity to all whom he met to oppose and defeat–those on the battlefield and those on the ballot. His magnanimity was informed by his trust in the wise and gracious providence and care of God in all things.

In this election year, when we Americans are torn apart by differences over momentous issues, may we yet remember the example of this, our most religious president. And may we follow it.